Thursday, January 22, 2015

Selma (a movie review post)

I have to wonder if it's the historical controversies over this movie that have caused it to be so overlooked by the Academy. Not that that has stopped them from being all over movies like The Imitation Game but, then, those are less controversial controversies. Yeah, I know Selma got a best picture nomination, but that seems almost as if it was only a token nomination (because they had to) rather than any serious consideration of the film.

The thing is, I think the controversies, especially the ones around LBJ, have to do with perspective rather than actual fact. In other words, both sides are correct and both sides are wrong. Sure, Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act and not even against his will, but that doesn't mean he didn't also act as an impediment to King. That's really the kind of thing that depends upon which side of the fence you're on. It's an awfully small thing to be arguing about in a film like this.

And what kind of a film is this? Well, it's everything that 12 Years a Slave was not. Where 12 Years is emotionally distant, Selma is emotionally gripping. Where 12 Years is brutally graphic, Selma shies away from actual depictions of violence. The club goes up, but you rarely see where it falls. What you do see is the aftermath and the emotional turmoil. You see purposeful, personal, systematic persecution of a people rather than the rather impersonal depiction of slavery from 12 Years and the isolated vendetta-style conflict. In Selma, it's not someone with a chip on his shoulder abusing a loan slave, it's a culture of persecution against a race. It's deliberate and it's illegal, and it was maddening to watch the injustice. Selma shines a bright light on what was a culture of intolerance and ignorance.

Look, I grew up in the South, and this movie made me wish that I had been alive in the 60s and could have marched with King myself.

That David Oyelowo was overlooked for a best actor nomination is frustrating at the very least. That Eddie Redmayne received one for sitting in a chair is an injustice. As far as I can tell from what people who know have been saying, Oyelowo was pretty spot on and, from the clips I've heard of King speaking, it sounded to me as if he nailed it. What I do know for sure, though, is that he nailed the speaking style of the Southern black preacher. I've been to some of those Southern Baptist meetings with black preachers, and Oyelowo, when he is delivering King's speeches, would have fit in flawlessly. It's also worth noting how monotone Oyelowo was when he was practicing those speeches to himself, but it was a tremendous transformation when he moved in front of a crowd.

The other acting is also great. Tom Wilkinson was spectacular as LBJ, as was Dylan Baker as Hoover. I have a fondness for Wendell Pierce and really enjoyed him as Rev. Williams. And Tim Roth... well, I wanted to punch him in his big, old nose. He needed someone to punch it. Stephen Root is also always good, and we didn't get less than we expected. Carmen Ejogo was also good as King's wife, but I don't actually think that one was an Oscar performance... except when you see that Felicity Jones was nominated; Ejogo was at least as good as Jones.

On top of everything else, though, the movie is timely in its relation to how you deal with terrorism, because that's what had been going on in the South for 100 years. I don't remember the exact quote, but there is a conversation between King and another man while they are in jail, the gist of which was something along the lines of standing up for your rights as a person and how to deal with the fact that the people who have been keeping you down will continue to try to knock you down. You just stand up again. It really resonated with what Charb said about dying on your feet rather than living on your knees. Some of King's followers did die, but they died on their feet for something they believed in, and it allowed those that came after them to start out on their feet. It's a powerful message.

Monday, January 19, 2015

You Can't Expect Better

Working with teenagers can be... Let's just say it can be interesting. They can be very creative, often in ways that will get them in trouble. Often in ways they know will get them in trouble because they're coming up with creative ways to do things they know they're not supposed to do. Fortunately, it's only very rarely that they come up with some brand new way to get into trouble. Usually, they're just re-inventing the wheel and doing the kinds of things we did when we were kids. Like telling your parents that you're sleeping over at someone else's house while that person tells his parents that he's sleeping over at your house.

Not that I ever did that. Or anything, really. Because I was the "good kid" who never got in trouble. But I had friends who did things and, mostly, what they wanted from me was to cover for them, because, hey, if I said it, it must be true. "Good kid," remember? My parents never had to bother with giving me a curfew, because I never stayed out late.

As I have mentioned before, I spent more than a few years working as a youth pastor. I learned very early on to be completely explicit with expectations and consequences. If you're not completely explicit, teenagers will try to get creative on you. Or, you know, tell you that you never said whatever it was you were trying to imply. When dealing with teens, never imply. Actually, when dealing with people, never imply. In general, leaving things to implication will never lead anywhere positive.

The first church I was youth pastor at after I moved out to CA didn't have its own building. The church rented space in a school auditorium for Sunday services. When I got there, that's all they had, Sunday services, and nothing specifically set up for the teenagers. As such, the youth group was very small. Less than a dozen kids and a significant portion of those were kids of the other staff. One of the first things I did was set up a midweek youth service that we had in the church offices, which were quite small. And, so, it didn't take us long to outgrow the space (we grew to over 30 kids within the first year I was there), which is when I had to start getting creative.

We moved to a house with a large living room that could fit everyone. The explicit rule was that once you got there, you stayed, a rule made after one of the girls turned 17, got a car for her birthday, and started using youth group as her excuse to go cruise. She'd show up for long enough to say she was there then cut and run. But it was still a house and had a more casual feel to it. People did things like ring the doorbell when they arrived, which was disruptive when they got there late.

So, one night, one particular girl -- she was 15 or 16 -- was sitting on the couch by the window, and she kept looking outside. A car pulled up and, before the person got all the way to the door, she jumped up to get it. As it turned out, it was her boyfriend and, instead of coming in, she went out, and they left. On Sunday after, I let her know that she couldn't back on Wednesday night, the explicit consequence, until I had had a meeting with her father about her behavior. My view was this: If you were going to leave in the middle, then you didn't want to be there. If you didn't want to be there, you didn't need to be there.

Let's just say there was wailing and gnashing of teeth.

During the meeting with her father (for which the pastor was also there, because this was a buddy of his), he said something along the lines of "Well, you can't expect better behavior than that. She's just a teenager." Basically, my daughter shouldn't suffer any consequences, because you can't expect her to act better than she is. I was blown away. I had never heard a parent say anything like that before.

After I finished staring, I said, "Actually, I most certainly can expect better behavior than that. In fact, I do expect better behavior than that, and the other 35 kids haven't had a problem living up to that expectation. You'll never get better behavior if you don't expect it." I believe that.

It was with some distress that I saw someone post on facebook last week that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, basically, deserved what they got because they provoked terrorists and you can't expect terrorists to do more than kill you when you provoke them. Now, while it's true that teenagers will misbehave and, yes, terrorists will kill people, that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't expect better behavior.

After all, terrorists, just like teenagers, are people, and we should be able to expect better of people.

I mean, it hasn't really been that long since we had a significant issue with racial terrorism in the United States and, while that's not 100% solved, it's a lot better than it was. It's better because we, as a nation, expected better behavior. In fact, we demanded it. We had clear expectations and clear consequences. Maybe it's time that we, as a world people, did the same. Terrorism, whether it's racially motivated or politically motivated or religiously motivated or whatever, is unacceptable behavior. We expect better.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Theory of Everything (a movie review post)

I'll start by making it clear that I am not a Hawking fan. In general, I am not a fan of science that has a greater relation to the kind of "science" that Greek philosophers did than to actual science. But that has nothing to do with the movie, which is kind of unfortunate, actually, since the movie barely touched on anything to do with science other than that Hawking was working on his PhD in physics.

In fact, the movie doesn't seem to have much to do with anything. The trailers seemed to indicate the movie was going to be focusing in Hawking's survival of his early onset motor neuron disease, and, maybe, the movie looks like it's heading in that direction at one point. Hawking meets Jane (the movie opens with that), they fall in love, Hawking falls on his face and discovers he's going to die. He has two years. Jane proclaims, "We'll fight this together." And, well, that's it. They just glide on through and never mention the fact that Hawking failed to die or why he lived. So, basically, the thing that might have made the movie interesting is left behind as if it was nothing more than a conversation over breakfast, "Oh, and by the way, we'll fight your disease together. Have a good day at work doing physics."

I did become curious, though, as to why Hawking did survive, and I tried to find out, but there's not a lot out there on the subject, at least not any information that requires a lot more time to find than I was willing to put into it. Basically, though, it sounds like the general attitude is, "Oh, he just didn't die." Did he have better care (Jane) than other people? Was it love? Was it determination? Was it just that he's so smart? None of those things are touched on in the movie, and I didn't see anything in a quick survey about Hawking, either. He just lived. Kind of like Harry Potter.

As far as the movie goes, there was nothing compelling about it. It's not that it was boring (that would be something that could be said about it, at least), it just wasn't anything. If the power had gone out or the projector broken or, for any reason, the movie had to be stopped, I would not have felt enough interest to wonder what happened. When it comes down to it, more than anything else, the movie is about what a horrible deal Jane struck when she said she wanted whatever time she and Stephen would have together, but, then, she didn't expect that to be more than two years.

In effect, the movie is about the horrible marriage that seems so common amongst most couples and hardly needs to have Stephen Hawking in it to drive that point home. And if it has a point, it's probably during the fantasy sequence at the end where Hawking imagines himself walking again and gives his "where there is life, there is hope" speech. I don't think I needed a movie to make that point, and this movie certainly doesn't support that point. Not in any way that matters.

For some reason, people seem to think that Eddie Redmayne did some kind of spectacular job playing Hawking but, mostly, he just sat in a chair with a grin plastered to his face. To say that I was underwhelmed would be an understatement. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing impressive about this movie, least of all Redmayne's performance. As to why it's being considered for any kind of Oscar has everything to do with the person it's based on and nothing to do with the merits of the film, of which it has very few. This has Heath Ledger written all over it to me, i.e., getting an undeserved Oscar for which there would have been no nomination if he hadn't died. Not that Hawking is dead, but it's the same kind of sympathy.

Maybe, I'm a heartless person, but I don't have that kind of sympathy. Redmayne hasn't delivered an astounding performance, and people wouldn't think he had if he was playing someone we'd never heard of. But, you know, it's Hawking, and we all feel bad for Hawking, so "Oooh! He was so good!"
Sorry, I cry "Bullshit!"

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"I'd rather die standing..."

I suppose you could say that I was a real Looney Tunes fan when I was a kid. It came on at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings, and I got up, religiously, to watch it. None of my friends did that. At best, they might catch one or two of the cartoons before it ended three hours later. Often, when I would spend the night at a friend's house, I'd be the only one up on Saturday morning, which is why I know none of my friends got up to watch cartoons that early. I'd only turn the TV on, with the sound down low, sitting close to it so that I could hear, and sit and watch Bugs, Wile E., and Yosemite Sam in someone else's still-sleeping house.

Oh, and Porky Pig. You know, the stuttering pig. Not one time in all of my childhood did I ever think that people who stutter were being made fun of because of Porky's stuttering. That did not stop a wave of protests throughout the 90s, though, against the pig and the removal (at least for a time) of Porky's famous closing line "Th-th-th-that's all folks!" Evidently, people (or pigs) who stutter were not considered good enough to be on TV. They might offend someone else with same condition. It's good no one ever told Mel Tillis.

We have become a culture too scared to give offense and too willing to be offended. Any hint of offense must be met with an immediate and very public apology. It's ridiculous and has moved into the realms of being an unhealthy obsession. This reluctance to offend has become the largest barrier to free speech in the world. We're too busy self-censoring to even know what free speech is. It's all about fear.

Maybe Porky is an extreme example but, seriously, being offended by an animated pig is pretty extreme. Probably, being offended by any cartoon is extreme. What a way to hand power over your life over to someone else. But I don't want to get side-tracked on the psychology of why people are blatantly offensive.

The actual issue is that when we all try so hard to never offend anyone and spare everyone's poor little feelings then, when there is someone who is willing to be offensive and ridicule things that probably ought to be ridiculed (because, honestly, more things probably ought to be ridiculed; anything that people treat as religion, in fact, from actual religion to money to sports teams), then that person stands out, way out, and stands out in that way can make him a target for retaliation from people who have given all of their power away.

The problem is that too many people, almost all people, just go along. It doesn't matter if it's wrong or right, they don't give things enough thought to ever get to that determination. Religious people are the worst. I say that as someone who grew up Baptist and worked in churches for years. I say that as someone who lost his first church position because he spoke out against something wrong the church leadership was doing. I say that as someone who was told, "Teenagers are not a priority for us because they don't bring in any money. Unless you can figure out how to get their parents to come to church [and tithe], we're not going to support the program [beyond being a babysitting service]." I say that as someone who is no longer associated with an organized church because every organized church I've been a part of has been more concerned with money than doing its job. No, wait, only concerned with money. The "job" was only a means to bringing in money.

But, then, churches are another of the places that are primarily concerned with taking people's power away from them. Satire, in that sense, can be a way to give that power back to the people.

Charlie Hebdo was not unknown to me before the attack on January 7. I didn't read it (because, well, French), but I agreed with its ideologies. I admired those men for continuing to publish despite the very real (as the massacre demonstrates) threat upon their lives. As Stephane Charbonnier said in 2012, "I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no children, no wife, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I'd rather die standing than live on my knees." That's not actually a new quote, the part about dying on one's feet. It goes back at least 200 years... to another Frenchman. People, some small group of people, have always been willing to stand up and die.

I can't say that I'm not afraid of retaliation. I have children. I have a wife. I even have a car, a house note, and a dog and a cat. But... But I would rather die standing than have my children live on their knees. The thing is, if more people would take that stance, the people who would kill wouldn't stand any kind of chance. But most people just stop at fear. And refusing to think.

Look, I get that Charlie Hebdo was irreverent, and I remember just how un-funny I found Bored of the Rings back when I was 14 or 15 and thought it would be a good idea to read it (but I was 14 or 15!), but!
When irreverence is seen as a justification for murder, there is no place left for reverence.

"I am Charlie."
"I am Ahmed."

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Is this a good place to stand?" (a Battle of Five Armies review)

It is not an illegitimate question to ask me why I saw this movie. I've not hid how much I disliked... no, loathed... the other two movies in this godforsaken trilogy that erupted from Peter Jackson's bowels (more on that in a moment), so why would I bother with this one? The answer is actually very simple: I don't earn the right to speak disparagingly about it without having seen it. It's much easier to give examples of why you don't like (hate) something than it is to defend your reasons for why you think you won't like something. There's no good response to, "But you haven't tried it."

As a related example:
My oldest son (both of my boys) detests the Hobbit movies. Not in his exact words, but he described it like this: Imagine the most beautiful bathroom in the world. Gorgeous. Marble and gold and perfumed. And it has a heated golden throne of a toilet. But, when you sit down to take a dump, it is still just a dump, and, specifically, The Battle of Five Armies is a slow motion movie of Peter Jackson on that beautiful, golden toilet in that gilded bathroom, taking a long, excruciating dump.

But he has this friend who is always attacking his position that, compared to the book, the movies are horrible. She loves the movies and thinks they are better than the book. The problem? She hasn't read the book. But she believes that since the movies have made so much money and that she likes them that that is proof enough that the book must really not be that good. And why bother with it, anyway, when she loves the movie so much? [Which goes back to what I said in my review of Desolation about kids not wanting to bother with the book because of the movie.] Her opinion, though, is ill informed and without authority.

So I went to see the movie so that I could have the freedom to talk about how stupid it all is.

And, this time, I'm not even going to mention the deviations from the book; I'm just going to talk about the blatant stupid of the movie. Which started immediately, I might add. There was so much stupid, in fact, that I lost count of the stupid before Smaug was even dead. Let's look at the big two:

1. Bard is left locked in prison as the dragon is attacking. Naturally, he's in a ragestorm trying to break his way out. But it's a good, solid prison, and he's having no luck. But he ends up with a rope that he's able to grapple a boat with. A very slow-moving boat because the boat is loaded down with gold and on the verge of sinking. And let me be clear: This is a boat being paddled by just a couple of dudes. Against all odds (and physics (maybe Peter Jackson has never been in a boat that was still tied to a dock)), rather than the boat stopping, the boat rips the wall out of the prison! Without even slowing down!

And just to continue the stupid of that scene, rather than go out the hole in the wall, Bard suddenly is able to punch a whole in the ceiling and go out that way instead.

2. During the battle, Bard's bow gets broken in half. How is he supposed to shoot the dragon out of the sky with a broken bow? Answer: Jam the two halves of the bow into a crumbling structure (because the dragon smashed it and set it on fire) and proceed to pull the string back as if nothing happened. Oh, except, now, the string is like three times as long and he uses his son to steady the arrow. Which leads me to believe that Jackson has probably never even touched a bow, because what Bard does is the equivalent of trying to shoot down an airplane (that's crawling at you) with one of those toy bows with the suction cup arrows. And, yes, I'm saying this as someone who was at one time into archery and has experience with bows.

The worst part about the movie, though, is that I couldn't wait for Thorin to die. I wanted him to just get it over with. Between all the slow motion talking and the drug hallucinations, I was just through with him. Jackson managed to undermine the entire point of The Hobbit through what he did with Thorin and the Arkenstone. There was no power in Thorin's apology to Bilbo, because there was no understanding on the part of Thorin, just recovery.

Oh, and to go back to mere stupid: Azog blasting through the ice as if he was rocket-powered. Seriously, someone send Peter Jackson back to school so that he can learn things like physics. And to teach him some appreciation of literature. Jackson's Hobbit is the worst piece if fan fiction filth I've ever seen or heard about.
And, yes, that's how I really feel.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Foxcatcher (a movie review post)

I think this might be a year where the performances are better than the movies they're in. Foxcatcher is a great example of this. I really can't say that watching Foxcatcher is an enjoyable experience. Disturbing is more like it. And kind of fascinating, but that's all about the actors.

I went into this one with no idea of what it was about. I mean, I had no clue at all other than my wife saying she thought it had something to do with boxing, which turned out to be wrong and only matters in that it explains that I had no expectations whatsoever. Even having no expectations, what I got was completely unexpected.

The movie was kind of like watching a scorpion or a large spider crawling over your kids, and you can't do anything about it. It gives you the shivers and makes your skin crawl watching that... thing... creeping over your kids, and you just keep hoping it keeps going and doesn't stop to bite or sting. Watching spiders and scorpions and how they move can be pretty fascinating. It's just not enjoyable when they're on you or someone you care for.

That said, the performances are amazing. I mean, seriously, they are fantastic.

You can barely recognize Carell, and it's not because of the nose and makeup. His whole bearing is changed. The way he holds his head, the way he talks, his mannerisms. There's nothing Carell-ish about him, none of that frenetic energy he so often has. And he's creepy. He's a creepy, rich, old white dude, and he acts like it. I might not have known it was him if I hadn't known it was him. That Steve Carell was in it was about the only thing I knew about the movie going into it.

Speaking of bearing, Tatum and Ruffalo were incredible. I don't know if I can even describe what they did. So they were playing Mark and David Shultz, wrestlers who both won gold at the 84 Olympics, and they had this way of moving their bodies around that more closely resembled chimpanzees than humans. It wouldn't have even surprised me if they had put their knuckles to the floor and moved with their arms instead of their legs. And it's not just about the way they walked; it's everything. Tatum even had this jutting lower jaw, and it wasn't some fancy prosthetic thing. If he was doing that himself, it must have taken incredible concentration to keep that up through filming. The overall effect, especially with Tatum, was that of cavemen. Or, at least, how we imagine cavemen.

And Ruffalo? Well, I wasn't even sure it was him some of the time during the movie. I mean, I thought it was Ruffalo, but, every once in a while, I was doubtful. I thought it was just someone that bore a striking resemblance to him. With the beard and the odd way he moved around, I was never quite sure, not until the credits rolled. That's just impressive.

To top it all off, at least as far as I can tell by doing a cursory investigation of what actually happened, the movie got it pretty spot on. The only issue I could even raise is that there is a lack of clarity about the time frame on some of the events, but that doesn't have any actual bearing on the movie or the plot; I was just surprised to find out how far apart some of the events actually were. That's a very small thing for a movie like this.

I think this is definitely a movie worth seeing as long as you're not looking for something that's going to give you that feelgood buzz when it's over. If you want to see some stellar performances, though, this is really a must see movie.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Going On the Offensive (an IWSG post)

I'm not one for all of that resolution stuff or making lists of goals or any of that stuff. I figure I'm going to do something or I'm not and making a "resolution" isn't going to change that. If I make any kind of list at all, it's only so that I don't forget things (and I'm not really the best at those kinds of lists, either), so don't look at this post as some sort of New Year's resolution thing; it's not. In fact, the idea for this post has been sitting in my notes since October, and I've been thinking about it for longer than that, but this seems about as good a time as any to get on with it.

First, this is likely to be my last IWSG post. Unless something just grabs me and tells me "I am an IWSG post!" it will be. To a large extent (and I've talked about this before), it's because IWSG is completely misnamed. There is no actual support in or from this group. It's an encouragement group, and there's nothing wrong with that other than that it should call itself that. Encouragement says "Good job!" and "You can do it!" and this group is all about those things. Support does more than it says (things like buying indie books and reviewing them rather than only ever talking about the big, mainstream traditionally published stuff), and it's rare to find other indie authors doing things that support indie authors.
Sorry (not sorry), it's just the truth.
Oh, and sporting links and announcements for books you haven't read is also encouragement not support. Yeah, I know some of you are disagreeing with that, but, really, how many people do you expect to buy a book when what you're doing is this:
"Hey! Buy this book that I haven't read and am never going to read! I'm sure it's good because this person I (sort of) know wrote it."
That amounts to "good job" and "I believe in you," not actually doing anything that supports the author.

Disclaimer: Yes, some of you out there do do the actual support things, but there aren't very many of you, and you don't do it because of IWSG. It's just something you do.

Which brings me to what is the point of this post: being more offensive. Yes, there is the part of the title that is going on the attack, and I mean that, too, but a lot of it has to do with not holding back anymore. Conventional wisdom is all about how "we" shouldn't be controversial or do things that could alienate readers or... whatever. It's all about the things we don't say and never speaking our actual minds because we might offend someone. Well, screw that.

Okay, before you screw that, let me be clear about something: I'm not talking about using "honesty" as a tool to be mean to someone. That's just being mean no matter how many people try to tell you it's just "brutal honesty." Those people suck and are liars. There's a difference between saying:
"This manuscript is full of grammar and punctuation issues." (truth) and
"This is the biggest piece of trash I ever read." (brutal honesty)
You should never resort to "brutal honesty" (unless it's at Snow Crash or Peter Jackson). Or unless you're talking about people in general, because general people are pretty stupid.
So, okay, if you're going to be brutally honest just own it and say you're being mean or something. I mean, seriously, I'd really appreciate the opportunity to be brutally honest with Peter Jackson.

All of that said, very often people are offended by the truth, but you should never let the fear of someone's offense stop you from saying the truth, even if that truth is only your own truth. And, really, despite what I was just saying about Peter Jackson, there's a difference between speaking the truth and just being mean (though, with him, I'd make an exception and be mean along with my truth (give me a break, the guy sleeps in money; he can take it)).

Basically, you can expect to see more things which could be seen to be as controversial here on the blog. Or maybe they won't be; I don't know. All I know is that I don't plan on holding back in the things I talk about anymore. Yeah, I know. Some of you out there are thinking, "He's been holding back?" Crazy, right? But it's the truth. But no more of that here!

Oh, and also...
I never really meant to have a schedule here on StrangePegs, not when I started, but I developed one after tracking patterns of page views. I settled into what seemed to be the optimal days. No more of that either! Yeah, that's right out the window. I'm just going to be posting whenever I feel like it from now on, so you'll have to be paying attention, I suppose. That is if you stick around to be offended in the first place. Being on a blogging schedule, though, has been being confining. For a while, now, actually, so it's just time to move on from that. The blogging is not the writing and, when it starts getting in the way of the writing, you have to get rid of it.
Not the blog, just the schedule.

All right [And, just by the way, that's the correct way to spell "all right;" it's two words, not one, so quit putting "alright" in your manuscripts.], there you have it. Changes and stuff that just so happen to coincide with the new year, but, hey, as much as I like all (most) of you writer types, you're really not my target audience. I can tell by my sales. Which is not to say that I want you to go away, but I have to start appealing to, well, to people who just read.
Or pissing them off.
Or something.
I guess we'll see how it goes.